Just what the doc­tor or­dered

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - DINING - By Michael Mayo

Post-hol­i­day bloat and a first­time bout of gout make for a very grumpy food critic. What to do? Where to re­view? True Food Kitchen came to the res­cue. True Food Kitchen is a chain started in 2008 by An­drew Weil, an Ari­zona-based physi­cian, au­thor and well­ness guru who es­pouses an anti-in­flam­ma­tory diet and an­tiox­i­dant foods. Veg­eta­bles, fresh juices, whole grains, herbs and spices have fea­tured roles.

Typ­i­cally, I am leery of celebrity doc­tors bear­ing self-help books, news­let­ters and life­style brands, just as I am leery of din­ing in malls, par­tic­u­larly in Boca Raton. And I’m not usu­ally a fan of eateries that pep­per menus and web­sites with buzz­words such as “sus­tain­able,” “re­spon­si­bly sourced” and “con­scious nutri­tion.” But a re­cent visit to True Food Kitchen, which opened ear­lier this year at Town Cen­ter, up­ended my think­ing. I did not merely like my ex­pe­ri­ence at True Food Kitchen — I loved it. I en­coun­tered tasty and sat­is­fy­ing food, help­ful and cheer­ful ser­vice and a light and bright at­mos­phere.

I hob­bled into True Food Kitchen skep­ti­cal but ready for bet­ter­ment. A month of eat­ing in­dul­gently and other stres­sors had left me feel­ing lousy, with the bat­tle wounds of pro­fes­sional eat­ing pil­ing up. The cul­mi­na­tion was an in­flamed big-toe joint that felt as if some­one had det­o­nated a stick of dy­na­mite between my toes while pour­ing gaso­line and toss­ing lit matches on my foot.

Trips to doc­tors brought un­wel­come but pre­dictable news. Af­ter gain­ing more than 40 pounds in 2 1⁄ years, I was la

2 beled pre-di­a­betic (happy Na­tional Di­a­betes Aware­ness Month!) and di­ag­nosed with gout, a painful arthritic con­di­tion where flare­ups cause in­tense pain. My po­di­a­trist pre­scribed a pow­er­ful anti-in­flam­ma­tory and rat­tled off the things I should no longer con­sume: al­co­hol, red meat, cheese, or­gans and shell­fish. Au revoir, foie gras — and stone crab, shrimp and lob­ster. Hello chicken and fish.

And hello, True Food Kitchen. I was sur­prised to find a bustling, full-ser­vice restau­rant. For some rea­son, I ex­pected an­other fast­ca­sual bowl-and-salad joint. Built into a cor­ner of the mall over­look­ing a park­ing lot, the space is at­trac­tive and airy, with blond woods, lime-green ban­quettes, big win­dows, good light­ing, planters lin­ing the din­ing room, an open kitchen, a spa­cious bar and let­ter­ing on a wall that spells out, “Grow.”

I sat for­lornly at the bar (the restau­rant serves al­co­hol, in­clud­ing or­ganic wines and spir­its) and ex­plained my predica­ment to the server, a bright and perky Florida At­lantic Univer­sity nutri­tion stu­dent. She ex­plained the an­ti­in­flam­ma­tory con­cept and gave me tips and ex­pla­na­tions of menu items. She also pointed to copies of Weil’s “True Food” cook­book lin­ing a shelf above the bar and said it con­tained many good recipes. Thank­fully, she did not go the hard-sell route. “You can get it on­line,” she said.

“All our restau­rants are fullser­vice, and we spend a lot of time train­ing our staff to an­swer ques­tions and ad­dress guests’ spe­cific needs,” True Food Kitchen CEO Chris­tine Barone ex­plained later in a fol­low-up in­ter­view.

The menu is big, with 35 items packed on a sin­gle page in small­ish print. It fea­tures soups, starters, sal­ads, bowls, piz­zas, sand­wiches and en­trees, and din­ers can eas­ily find veg­e­tar­ian, ve­gan or gluten-free items. I started with a Medicine Man non­al­co­holic re­fresher ($6, 110 calo­ries). A tall glass came with a pur­plish mix of heavy-brewed green tea, black-cherry juice, pome­gran­ate, honey and sea buck­thorn, a di­etary sup­ple­ment made from the berries of a shrub. Served over ice, it was in­vig­o­rat­ing and mildly sweet. It had 22 grams of su­gar, I later learned from nu­tri­tional in­for­ma­tion posted on­line. Not ex­actly su­gar-free, but bet­ter than the 39 grams of su­gar found in a can of Coca-Cola.

Calo­rie counts are listed on the menu next to prices, and both are pleas­ingly low. Edamame dumplings ($10, 270 calo­ries) were del­i­cate and de­light­ful in a light broth of dashi, white-truf­fle oil and Asian herbs. Charred cauliflower ($9, 410 calo­ries) was sub­stan­tial and fla­vor­ful, with harissa, dates, dill, mint and pis­ta­chio paste. A cheese­less pizza with arugula and crushed or­ganic DiNapoli toma­toes ($12, 620 calo­ries), was thin and crispy, fin­ished with a vi­brant driz­zle of lemon and olive oil. I didn’t miss moz­zarella at all. I ate half of each item and found my­self sated, a meal that came in at less than 800 calo­ries, in­clud­ing the drink.

“We do good things here,” a server said with a know­ing wink when I of­fered com­pli­ments af­ter din­ner.

True Food Kitchen has tapped into a con­cept that is ripe for the ex­ploit­ing, given Amer­ica’s grow­ing epi­demic of obe­sity, di­a­betes and other food-re­lated ail­ments. Weil de­vel­oped the menu with Phoenix restau­ra­teur Sam Fox. On its web­site, the restau­rant says it is in­spired by the phi­los­o­phy “that food should make you feel bet­ter, not worse.” It has grown from a sin­gle eatery in Ari­zona to 25 out­posts in 11 states, with more on the way in Florida. Oprah Win­frey is a fan and in­vestor who sits on the com­pany’s board of di­rec­tors.

“I get notes and let­ters ev­ery day from peo­ple who have eaten at the restau­rant while they’re vis­it­ing from other ci­ties and they say, ‘When are you com­ing to my town?’ ” Barone says. “My par­ents live in Tampa and they keep ask­ing, ‘When are you com­ing here?’ We show that a health-con­scious menu based on an anti-in­flam­ma­tory diet can still be de­li­cious and cre­ative.”

A look at nu­tri­tional in­for­ma­tion posted on­line shows that the eatery is health-minded but not ex­actly healthy, with many items am­ply fla­vored with fat, salt and su­gar. For ex­am­ple, the an­cient­grains bowl ($14, 690 calo­ries), a pop­u­lar item with miso-glazed sweet potato, farro, quinoa, charred onion, porta­bello mush­rooms, avo­cado, hemp seed and turmeric, con­tains 37 grams of fat (60 is the daily rec­om­mended al­lowance) and 1,190 mil­ligrams of sodium (2,000 rec­om­mended daily). Moroc­can chicken ($20, 680 calo­ries), which I or­dered as part of a take­out pack­age eaten later, was ten­der and well-spiced, but it con­tains 38 grams of fat and 2,120 mil­ligrams of sodium.

Barone points out that other restau­rant chains serve items with “two or three times” the daily rec­om­mended in­take of salt and su­gar. She says that guests can make re­quests to lower salt or su­gar based on di­etary needs. To the restau­rant’s credit, the pro­tein add-ons avail­able to top bowls and sal­ads are low in salt and su­gar, in­clud­ing a per­fectly grilled piece of salmon ($9, 260 calo­ries) that topped the Korean noo­dle salad ($14, 420 calo­ries) with sweet-potato glass noo­dles, bok choy, kale, spicy kim­chi cu­cum­bers and pineap­ple (roasted in­house daily).

“We pre­pare every­thing from scratch,” Barone says. The restau­rants fea­ture a menu that changes with the sea­sons and recipes de­vel­oped by a culi­nary team in Ari­zona.

At the end of my meal, a server asked me earnestly, “How do you feel?” Light, good and en­er­gized, I said. I skipped dessert.

Who knew that I’d leave so happy af­ter eat­ing at a chain restau­rant? In a mall? In Boca? Con­sider me a True Food Kitchen con­vert. I guess you could say I drank the Dr. Weil Kool-Aid, or ac­tu­ally a Medicine Man. It’s just the elixir I needed.

CAR­LINE JEAN/SUN SEN­TINEL

Moroc­can chicken ($20) is among the gluten-free op­tions at True Food Kitchen in Boca Raton, served with heir­loom car­rots, figs, chick­peas, olives and African spices. It is tasty, but also packs more sodium (2,120 mil­ligrams) than the daily rec­om­mended al­lowance.

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